From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Journalism and Secrecy in the New Media Age


Nieman Reports: The Nieman Foundation’s magazine about journalism

In Nieman Reports, journalists write about the issues that revolve around secrecy, watchdog reporting, and freedom of the press. From the stories in our collection entitled “Eroding Freedoms: Secrecy, Truth and Sources” to a five-part series that the magazine published on 21st Century Muckraking, Nieman Reports offers its global audience insights that emerge from reporting and editing experiences. We’ve selected a few articles to highlight for this conference and invite you to search our website,, for others.

"Investigative Reporting About Secrecy" - Winter 2010
Ted Gup, author of "Nation of Secrets," writes "… it would be a terrific investment of reportorial resources, not to mention a valuable public service, to dedicate an entire beat to secrecy."

"Global Investigative Reporting Effort Exposes Asbestos Trade" - Fall 2010
Conference speaker David Kaplan discusses the efforts of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to report on the global asbestos trade, a practice that continues despite bans in a number of countries.

"Filling a Local Void: J-School Students Tackle Watchdog Reporting" - Summer 2009
Conference speaker Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino discuss the New England Center for Investigative Reports, the project they run at Boston University that allows students to work on major investigative stories for publication in media outlets.

"A Digital Vision of Where Journalism and Government Will Intersect" - Spring 2009
Conference speaker Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, writes "… the journalistic process of assembling information and connecting the dots to inform tough questions will be easier."

"Classified Documents: Secrecy vs. Citizenship" - Spring 2008
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, calls on journalists to oppose wholesale secrecy as part of their duty as citizens. He also believes that, when possible, readers should be given full access to classified documents uncovered by news organizations.

"Investigative Reporting about Secrecy" - Spring 2008
Ted Gup discusses the need for an entire newsroom beat devoted to secrecy, and some of the interesting things he discovered while researching his book "Nation of Secrets." His favorite question to ask sources: “May I have a list of everything I am not allowed to see?”

"Secrets and the Press" - Spring 2008
Conference speaker Walter Pincus, who has been reporting on government for 50 years, reviews Ted Gup’s book “Nation of Secrets” and discusses how secrecy both helps and hurts public discourse in the United States.

"The Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Better Access to Government Information on the Record" - Summer 2005
In the first of five installments featuring content from a symposium held in Washington in December, former Nieman Curator Bill Kovach puts into a broader context the past and present use—and misuse—of anonymous-source reporting and to analyze its benefits and detriments to journalism and the public interest

"Reporters Weigh the Value of Information Against the Threat of Legal Action" - Summer 2005
Dan Olmsted discusses the need for journalists to consider the motives of a leak's source when making the decision to publish, as it is the journalists and publications that print leaked information who face reprisals, not the leakers.

"Journalism and the Public Interest" - Summer 2005
In a book excerpt from Oxford University's "The Press," NPR's news analyst Daniel Schorr (now deceased) discusses the history of the First Amendment, and details some of the more famous cases of leaked secrets in American history from Watergate to Iran-Contra and the Valerie Plame case that dominated headlines at the time.

"Anonymous Sources: Their Use in a Time of Prosecutorial Interest" - Summer 2005
Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus, a conference speaker, discusses his own small role in the Valerie Plame investigation, and how he used his judgment in deciding when to publish the information that he had about her connections to the CIA.

"‘Perilous Times’ for First Amendment Rights" - Spring 2005
Conference speaker Maggie Mulvihill writes about "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism," and urges journalists to continue pushing for freedom of information regardless of the government's efforts to stop it.

"The Steady March of Government Secrecy" - Fall 2004
Pete Weitzel, then freedom of information coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, writes that the number of documents marked as "Classified" or "Secret" has been increasing dramatically, prompting journalism organizations to actively push back against the practice.

"The Associated Press Responds to Increased Government Secrecy" - Fall 2004
In an excerpt from a 2004 lecture, Associated Press CEO Tom Curley talks about the AP’s renewed efforts to combat excessive government secrecy.

"Government Studies Vanish From Reporters' View" - Summer 2004
A reporter from the Mobile (Ala.) Register writes about how his paper pushed back against secrecy laws that were being used to hide reports on the dangers of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) facilities planned in the community.

"Revealing a Reporter's Relationship with Secrecy and Sources" - Summer 2004
Former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman discusses how he used to uncover government secrets—by making wild guesses to guide his reporting, listening for meaningful silences, and starting low on the information food chain.

"Telling Stories the Military Doesn't Want Told" - Summer 2004
UPI editor Dan Olmsted reflects on reporting done by Mark Benjamin on the deplorable conditions encountered by soldiers returning from Iraq. At all corners the military sought to discredit their reporting and refused to provide comment.

"Shining the Globe's Spotlight on the Catholic Church" - Spring 2003
Walter Robinson gives the inside story behind the Boston Globe's reporting on sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Robinson and his team had to work against an organization that was well connected and well financed—and determined to keep its secrets hidden.

"The People's Right to Know vs. Government Secrecy" - Winter 2002
Reporter Hilary Burke writes about the struggle to interview INS detainees following September 11, 2001, when the government took special interest in the cases because of tenuous ties to terrorism.

"Secrecy and the Press in a Time of War" - Winter 2001
Ted Gup, writing shortly after September 11, 2001, says that "secrecy, taken to excess, poses its own dire threat to national security. It creates fear and distrust, allows rumor to fill the void of information, disenfranchises the public from the sacrifices asked of it, and ultimately plays squarely into the hands of those who wish us ill."

"Is the Press Up to the Task of Reporting These Stories?" - Winter 2001
James Bamford looks at the crackdowns on openness that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the start of the war in Afghanistan and how the new America began to look increasingly like George Orwell’s Oceania.